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Twitter users are funny, helpful, and insightful – but they can also be downright ruthless. It’s easy to say, “If you don’t like it, just leave,” but that’s a cop-out. We can do better than that.

Twitter knows it has an abuse problem: the company’s CEO recently distributed a memo to the company taking personal responsibility for it.

“We suck at dealing with abuse.” – Dick Costolo, Twitter CEO

Severe abuse on Twitter disproportionally affects women and minority groups, as revealed in a 2014 study by the non-partisan fact tank Pew Research Centre.

online-harassment-experiences-pewresearchcentre

Numbers are one thing; stories are another. I’m going to take you through real examples of Twitter abuse, experienced by women from a wide variety of industries. We’ll also look at an expert opinion on Twitter’s role in mitigating abuse, and round up some of the best recommendations for Twitter to take that experts and industry professionals have made.

Content warning: This article discusses and includes screencaptures of a number of offensive tweets, which may include misogyny, body shaming, gendered insults, victim blaming, incitement to suicide, sexual violence, rape and death threats.

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Stories of Twitter Torment: How Bad Can It Be?

There are lots of reasons people have been harassed on Twitter. None of these reasons are good, and many of them show how heartless and rotten people can be. Also, while each of the cases explored here are fairly high-profile, keep in mind that this kind of abuse can happen to anyone – it doesn’t matter what industry you work in, or how many followers you have.

People are punished for standing up for others.

Caroline Criado-Perez fought for the only woman’s image on the back of the English £5 note, and rape threats followed. When the Bank of England removed the only woman on the back of the £5 note in 2013, Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned to have it re-instated.

ccriadoperez-twitter

The campaign was successful, but in the aftermath she got rape and death threats. Two arrests were made, but even that didn’t prompt many changes on Twitter’s end in the two years since Criado-Perez’s experience.

Award-winning author Malorie Blackman called for diversity in children’s books, and received racist tweets after. In 2014, Children’s laureate Malorie Blackman spoke to Sky News about wanting to see greater diversity in children’s literature, to allow kids from all backgrounds to see themselves in stories. After Sky News published the interview with an inaccurate title, “Children’s books ‘Have Too Many White Faces‘”, she began to receive a torrent of racist Tweets.

malorieblackman-twitter

Blackman deleted the racist Tweets from her feed and reported two of the worst, and then left social media for a few days. She returned to re-affirm that she won’t let racist abuse stand in the way of her campaigning in favour of diversity in children’s books.

People are attacked for caring about women in games.

Feminist Video Games Critic Anita Sarkeesian gets regular death & rape threats by angry gamers.

Anita Sarkeesian, the creator of the popular video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games (which we featured in our Stuff to Watch column Let Feminist Frequency Teach You A Thing Or Two About Women In Video Games [Stuff to Watch] Let Feminist Frequency Teach You A Thing Or Two About Women In Video Games [Stuff to Watch] I've got some bad news: video games are traditionally pretty sexist. Video blogger Anita Sarkeesian has noticed. Read More ) and founder of the non-profit organization Feminist Frequency, is a regular target for harassment of all kinds. Her research and videos explore the (often sexist) portrayal of women in media, primarily video games.

femfreq-twitter

Sarkeesian gets abusive tweets every day, from people calling her names, criticising her work, wishing her death and rape, telling her to kill herself, and other horrible things.

sarkeesian-abuse-tweet

The abuse doesn’t end online, either. In 2014, mass shooting threats that were made by people who wanted Sarkeesian to cancel a lecture she was to give at Utah State University. She cancelled the lecture due to a lack of adequate security measures.

Game developer Brianna Wu stands up for fellow female game developers, and was driven from her home by Twitter threats.

Brianna Wu is the head of development at game studio Giant Spacekat, the company behind the woman-centric adventure game Revolution 60.

spacekatgal-twitter

Wu has spoken out against the Gamergate movement, and has since received tweets featuring, you guessed it, death and rape threats. These threats have targeted her, her husband, and even her dead dog. Wu, like Anita Sarkeesian, has also been doxxed, meaning her address was revealed publicly. She was driven from her home.

“I’ve had 46 [death threats] sent to me in the last 5 months. They often target me by name. The most frightening ones say who, what, where, why and when I will be murdered.” – Brianna Wu

The threats have even extended to the rest of the Giant Spacekat team, and the attendees of PAX East (one of the gaming industry’s largest events). In the interest of safety for her team, she pulled the company’s presence from PAX East 2015.

Suffice it to say, Brianna Wu is not satisfied with the way Twitter handles abuse complaints.

People are victimized at their most vulnerable moments.

Zelda Williams was sent photoshopped pictures of her father, Robin Williams, after his death.

After beloved actor Robin Williams committed suicide, two Twitter users harassed his daughter Zelda Williams.

zelda-robin-williams

They called her awful words, and sent her photoshopped pictures of her father after death. It’s hard to imagine anything more hurtful that could be done to a grieving daughter or son.

Zelda Williams left Twitter due to the emotional distress it caused her. She returned on September 1st, with a thank-you to those who supported her, and a link to her Tumblr page with a short message about bullying.

Olympic Swimmer Rebecca Adlington was accused of letting Britain down after ‘only’ winning Bronze.

Rebecca Adlington won gold medals for swimming in 2008, but when she only won bronze in 2012 Twitter trolls accused her of letting her country down. As of June 2014 she was still getting abuse from Twitter trolls. She gets called ugly, she gets called a whale or a dolphin, and her nose is mocked. That can take a toll on a person.

beckadlington

In April 2014 she gave an interview to the DailyMail.co.uk where she discusses what appears to be a “new nose” and the judgmental response on social media. She has had to block between 2,000 and 4,000 Twitter accounts that were harassing her. Though Adlington hasn’t left Twitter, she wants to see the company put greater effort into stopping people from opening multiple accounts using false identities, and increase monitoring of abuse.

Some victims will try anything to get their abusers to behave…

Professor Mary Beard befriends her Twitter trolls, even after receiving a picture of genitalia photoshopped onto her face.

Professor Mary Beard (a Classicist from Cambridge University and a tv historian) has received tweets criticising her appearance, making derogatory tweets about her genitalia, and calling her evil. She even once also received a picture of a vagina photoshopped onto her face.

wmarybeard-twitter

Professor Beard didn’t leave Twitter, however. She has taken to befriending her abusers. She once sent a letter of recommendation to one young man who sent her abusive tweets, in an effort to save him from damaging his career prospects with a misogynistic tweet. He even responded with an apology!

For Hadley Freeman, journalist at the Guardian, taming Twitter trolls is not that simple.

hadleyfreeman-twitter

Hadley Freeman has covered fashion, feminism, pop culture, and Judaism for The Guardian for 14 years, but, she writes,

It wasn’t until I was sent to Brazil in June to help cover the World Cup that I would wake up daily to messages from strangers informing me of their desire to punch me “in the vagina and boobs” and kick me “in the uterus”.

She has tried Mary Beard’s technique of talking to trolls in an effort to “win them round”. Unfortunately for Freeman, that led to her Twitter trolls encouraging their followers to tell her how they would rape her.

Twitter’s Support Efforts

In December 2014, Twitter began allowing users to flag abusive tweets within their smartphone app. It’s a small, but important, piece of interaction design, one that makes it quicker and easier to report or block people who say hurtful things.

There’s lots more that Twitter could do, though. Eva Galperin and Nadia Kayyali of the Electronic Frontier Foundation present thorough, well-reasoned approaches Twitter could take to address abuse and harassment. One thing they focus on is how Twitter appears to enforce its abuse polices inconsistently (the threats against Brianna Wu at PAX would seem to qualify as violating the Terms of Service, for example), and that Twitter should include “information about content takedowns and account suspensions related to abuse complaints, such as the number of complaints, type of complaint, whether or not the complaint resulted in the takedown of content or the suspension of an account, and so on” in its biannual transparency report. This is important when some complaints go unaddressed for months on end.

Mobile Interaction Designer/Developer Danilo Campos (who did the interaction and visual design for popular travel planning site Hipmunk) has an excellent, short list of small things Twitter could do to empower and protect users, such as letting people choose to block all accounts less than one month old, or block all accounts that have been blocked by a certain number of their friends.

Finally, TechHive recommended 10 actions for Twitter to take to stop abuse, including a few concrete recommendations that are my favourites. For one, if Twitter allowed and encouraged third-party reports, you could report abuse on behalf of your friends. Another great recommendation they made (which could give victims like Zelda Williams some peace) is to allow users to disable in-line images on the Web, instead of just on mobile apps.

A Cyberbullying Expert’s Perspective

For a unique perspective on Twitter’s abuse problem, I reached out cyberbullying/cybercrime expert Jayne Hitchcock, author of the book Net Crimes & Misdemeanors. Jayne Hitchcock is the president of the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA).

JC: Do you feel it is important for a company like Twitter to put a stop to online bullying?

Yes, I definitely do. If they put more money into their abuse departments, and took complaints seriously, there wouldn’t be as many problems as there currently are online. It’s a shame it had to take gamergate to get them to scramble to start taking care of the problem.

JC: Are there actions Twitter should take to protect its users?

Not just Twitter, but if they made people prove they are a real person when getting an account, meaning that person would only have one account, I can bet the majority of harassment would stop. Second would be to immediately look into complaints and to put an account on hold until they come to a determination if it is harassing or not. It’s their company, they have every right to put a temp hold on any account on their site.

JC: Are there any online communities that you think handle abuse really well? And if so, which ones, and what can we learn from them?

No. None of them do (at least none I have had to deal with over the almost past 20 years). All of the social media sites seriously lack any type of proper abuse handling and they need to train their abuse department how to tell if it is harassment and put an end to it before it escalates out of control. I’d be happy to come and train them.

Conclusion

There is no service out there quite like Twitter that lets you get your finger on the pulse of the world so closely, or connect with your followers so succinctly. Unfortunately, the service has a long way to go to create a culture where all people feel safe maintaining a presence and expressing themselves.

Furthermore, solving Twitter’s abuse problem is more complicated than letting people block or report abusive users. As Kimberlee Morrison of The Social Times points out, “report” functions can and have been abused themselves: government officials used ‘report’ features to suppress activists for example, as happened in Vietnam to journalists on Facebook.

Additionally, automatically blocking accounts that appear from a single source (to prevent spam) could result in many legitimate activists who use the Tor browser Really Private Browsing: An Unofficial User’s Guide to Tor Really Private Browsing: An Unofficial User’s Guide to Tor Tor provides truly anonymous and untraceable browsing and messaging, as well as access to the so called “Deep Web”. Tor can’t plausibly be broken by any organization on the planet. Read More being banned accidentally, like bycatch caught in an undiscriminating net.

Have you ever received abusive messages over Twitter? How did it affect you, and what would you like to see Twitter do about it?

If you have a lot of trouble with abusive Twitter users (so flagging abusive tweets takes too long), try the Block Together web app, which lets you block new accounts, low-follower-count accounts, and accounts your friends have blocked. Though it’s not native to Twitter, it could be a helpful workaround to make your Twitter experience more pleasant.

Even if you don’t have a whole lot of problems with Twitter abuse, you can always play a round of Block, Mute, Unfollow Spring Clean Your Twitter With A Game Of 'Block, Mute, Unfollow' [Weird & Wonderful Web] Spring Clean Your Twitter With A Game Of 'Block, Mute, Unfollow' [Weird & Wonderful Web] It's time to play a game. It isn't one you'll be familiar with, because we've just invented it to give you an entertaining excuse for spring cleaning your Twitter. Read More  to clean up your Twitter feed and make it more useful and fun.

Finally, Twitter’s abuse form for formal harassment complaints is a bit long and tedious, but the option is there. I’m fortunate to not have needed to fill it out before, so if you have, comment below to let us and your fellow MakeUseOf readers know what the situation was and how/if Twitter handled it.

Image Credit: Young women experience particularly severe forms of online harassment via Pew Research Centre, Zelda and Robin Williams via Nintendo, @adnsma via Feminist Frequency’s Tumblr

  1. Janet
    January 27, 2016 at 1:52 am

    Um Twitter, "We suck at intervening" is no excuse!!!! The shit you let go down is not cool by ANY MEANS!!!! You stand idly by while people like @KyleKardashian says that Muslims should be blown up, @KelsyKardashian makes inflammatory statements like "Black people are so nasty. They have nappy ass hair. I hate them."

    You allow AllAmericanHolly@PureWhiteHolly to launch targeted attacks against Black women literally ALL DAY and ALL NIGHT, insulting them for their hair texture, telling them they're least desired by all men, they're ugly and masculine, referring to them as "greasy apes" when they offend her and speaking whatever manner of evil against them that she pleases.

    I've reported all these people I don't know how many times, yet Twitter has yet to get off your apathetic asses and do something about it! Twitter is the reason kids and even adults are taking their own lives. Twitter is the gateway to hell and joining the environment means signing your life away to get attacked for your religious beliefs, skin color and even just for existing!

    There's NO EXCUSE for the amount of bullshit you tolerate and subject innocent, harmless unsuspecting users to. Sometimes blocking just isn't enough. Why are you REWARDING trolls by giving them a sense of power they DON'T deserve? Get rid of these morons and give the environment back to those who DO deserve it!

  2. Janet
    January 27, 2016 at 1:51 am

    Um Twitter, "We suck at intervening" is no f****** excuse!!!! The s*** you let go down is not cool by ANY MEANS!!!! You stand idly by while people like @KyleKardashian says that Muslims should be blown up, @KelsyKardashian makes inflammatory statements like "Black people are so nasty. They have nappy ass hair. I hate them."

    You allow AllAmericanHolly@PureWhiteHolly to launch targeted attacks against Black women literally ALL DAY and ALL NIGHT, insulting them for their hair texture, telling them they're least desired by all men, they're ugly and masculine, referring to them as "greasy apes" when they offend her and speaking whatever manner of evil against them that she pleases.

    I've reported all these people I don't know how many times, yet Twitter has yet to get off your apathetic asses and do something about it! Twitter is the reason kids and even adults are taking their own lives. Twitter is the gateway to hell and joining the environment means signing your life away to get attacked for your religious beliefs, skin color and even just for existing!

    There's NO EXCUSE for the amount of bullshit you tolerate and subject innocent, harmless unsuspecting users to. Sometimes blocking just isn't enough. Why are you REWARDING trolls by giving them a sense of power they DON'T deserve? Get rid of these morons and give the environment back to those who DO deserve it!

  3. Flashwit
    March 31, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Socalnerd, you idiot. Since you seem to be a misogynist, I will let you know right now that I am a man so that you will take me seriously. Why are you blathering on about freedom of speech when this is an article about Twitter? You know, a private entity where freedom of speech is not relevant?

    "Most feminist females on twitter..." I would be delighted to see your data sources for this, but somehow I believe that this is "data" pulled out of your ass.

    For some reason there's always at least one moron on these articles who feels the need to bring up the "butwhataboutthemenz!?!?" topic. Look you fool, this article is about being a woman on twitter, and I don't see why they would bother mentioning men just to satisfy your bizarre demands. You can see the actual data right in this article that an overwhelming majority of the abuse is targeted at women, thus why the issue gets more attention.

    God, I don't even know why I bother talking to you idiots.

    • Person
      April 1, 2015 at 5:49 am

      Since it seems obvious your teeny little brain cant comprehend Socalnerds comment, let me explain. He means to put out the fact that this is obviously biased towards garnering sympathy towards women when they receive equal harassment to men. Everyone gets harassed on the internet, its not a problem of gender its a problem of people just being assholes. Ive been threatened constantly just playing games casually, but I dont make a huge fuss of it cause it literally happens everyday. People are just assholes

    • Tina
      April 1, 2015 at 9:00 am

      @Person: The study mentioned in the beginning of the article showed that "abuse on Twitter disproportionally affects women and minority groups". Men are not a minority group.

      That said, I agree that it doesn't matter who or what group is being targeted - harassment should never be tolerated.

    • Jessica C
      April 5, 2015 at 8:00 pm

      @Flashwit, calling socalnerd an idiot was not necessary, but I appreciate your support and your heart seems to be in the right place.

      @Person, the 'teeny tiny brain' comment towards Flashwit was not necessary, and I don't think that the level and severity of harassment is equal between men and women, but I do sympathize with your experience of being harassed in playing online games. I hear trash-talk can get pretty bad on games like League of Legends and World of Warcraft, though I don't play myself.

      My intent with this article is to promote compassion and understanding, not hate and harassment.

      Keep it civil, everyone, and thanks for sharing your insight and experiences!

  4. dragonduder
    March 31, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Great article! Shame there are so many assholes everywhere, but it's funny seeing them get mad when their efforts to suppress and target women or minorities go nowhere.

    • Jessica C
      April 5, 2015 at 7:53 pm

      Thanks so much for your support, dragonduder.

      In hindsight I wish I spent some time in the article discussing the importance of taking a deep breath before you tweet at all and asking yourself if what you're about to tweet is something you would say to a person's face, and if it's going to come across as you intend.

      There are definitely people out there who don't mean to be assholes. Unfortunately, it's so quick and easy to tweet that you say something more hurtful than you meant, or find your sarcasm and satire misconstrued.

  5. socalnerd
    March 31, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    Twetting While Male: Most feminist females on twitter call male derogatory names and bully men who don't share or agree on their view points. Yet why the only focus on women only. What about the man on "Shirt-gate" that JPL scientist who wore a shirt that his female friend made for him. He got skewered by twitter women. Maria Kang who posted pictures of her hot body after having 3 kids, running 2 businesses with the caption of "whats your excuse" she got bullied by other fat women.

    My thoughts is no matter the social media. People have to stop using the victim card. Things have consequences. Companies and Government can make all the rules they want. But freedom of speech covers peoples rights to be mean. You can't legislate peoples emotions. People are mean, people are nice. We can't control others behaviors no more than we can control the weather. Sure you can block them, but if your on a social platform know your opinions may not be shared by others.

    • Tina
      April 1, 2015 at 8:56 am

      Freedom of speech ends where human rights begin to be violated.

      Article 29 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

      In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

      You cannot legislate people's emotions, but you can raise and educate your children to become responsible and compassionate adults. While you cannot change other people, you can lead with example and inspire them to follow you. If you do not tolerate your friends harassing others, they might change their mind because they value your opinion. That's leadership. If they don't care and continue to be mean, you should question your friendship.

    • Jessica C
      April 5, 2015 at 7:44 pm

      @socalnerd Freedom of speech does not mean you get to say whatever you like without consequences.

      Freedom of speech prohibits the government from stopping you from saying what you like (for example, protesting on government property), and even then, there are provisions for imprisoning people for spreading hate propaganda.

      Finally, Dr. Matt Taylor of #shirtgate infamy didn't get get death threats - unlike some of the women who suggested he shouldn't have been wearing that shirt while talking on television about landing Rosetta on a comet. Maria Kang's photograph captioned 'What's Your Excuse?" was insensitive to many who have struggled with weight issues. Both were called out appropriately.

      The point of my article was to show that there are people out there on Twitter getting harassed for no good reason. In some cases they are standing up for what's right, or just minding their own business. I stand by what I said in my opening paragraph,

      "It’s easy to say, “If you don’t like it, just leave,” but that’s a cop-out. We can do better than that."

  6. Taylor
    March 30, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    Really fantastic article Jessica. :) It's such a sad, scary world we live in that this sort of thing happens with such frequency.

    • Jessica C
      April 1, 2015 at 6:54 am

      Thank you so much, Taylor! I'm glad you liked it.

      It is a sad and scary world out there, but I hope I can make some people out there feel a little safer.

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